October 2012

Wisconsin Presidential Elections: History in the Making

By Ed Vopal, President
Wisconsin Association for Justice

Wisconsin has seen its share of close presidential elections.  In each election cycle, a number of races  are decided by a statistically few votes.  A look back at the voting history in Wisconsin may provide insight on how our state will fare in 2012.

The U.S. presidential elections in 2000 and 2004 in Wisconsin were extremely close. Democrat Al Gore carried Wisconsin by only 5,708 votes in 2000 and Democrat John Kerry won the state by 11,384 votes in 2004.  Recent polls indicate that Wisconsin's presidential vote may once again be close in 2012.

The composition of the electorate is clearly a key factor in the outcome of any election.

Wisconsin became a state in 1848, and the Wisconsin Constitution allowed all native born white males to vote as well as white male resident aliens, who even though not citizens, intended to become citizens.  One year of residency was required before a person could vote.  Certain Indian tribes could vote, but blacks and women were not allowed to vote.

Wisconsin's electorate at that time is described by Robert Booth Fowler in Wisconsin Votes: An Electoral History.  He noted three distinct regions of settlement in Wisconsin:

1)  Southwest Wisconsin.  This area developed early because of lead mining.  "Many Cornish migrants, willing to mine lead, as well as a fair number of American southerners from Kentucky, Tennessee, and southern Illinois moved to the region."

2)  Southeast Wisconsin.  This area was "populated by a high number of native-born settlers, often of British descent, many from New York and New England."

3) West and North of Milwaukee.  This was "good farming territory.... More and more Germans and immigrants of other nationalities moved to these seemingly vast and fertile areas that covered much of south and central Wisconsin."

These settlement regions were important to the early voting patterns in Wisconsin.  Democrats were primarily the beneficiaries in the state's early elections, and Democratic candidates for President carried the state in 1848 and 1852.  However, the issue of slavery expansion created deep divisions within the state.

Wisconsin residents saw an opportunity to create a new political party and the Republican Party was formed here in the 1850s.  From the Republican Party's inception, the state was reliably Republican, voting primarily for GOP presidential candidates from 1856 through 1928.

The state switched to the Democratic Party during the Great Depression when it voted for Franklin Roosevelt in 1932, 1936 and 1940.  From the mid-1940s through 1984, the state voted Republican except for swings to the Democrats in the 1948 (Harry Truman), 1964 (Lyndon Johnson) and 1976 (Jimmy Carter) elections.  Democrats have won the voting majority in six elections since 1988, although as noted, the 2000 and 2004 races were extremely close.

Today's voting patterns in Wisconsin follow national trends:  Counties with large urban populations have moved to the majority supporting the Democratic Party, while suburban and rural areas have moved to the majority supporting the Republican Party.  In Wisconsin, Republican strongholds are generally in the counties surrounding Milwaukee and in Southeastern and Northeastern Wisconsin, while Democratic strongholds are typically in the cities of Madison and Milwaukee.  Wisconsin bucks the trend a bit because southwestern Wisconsin, which is primarily rural, has become more Democratic in the last two decades.  Democrats also do well in rural counties bordering Lake Superior in the Northwest. 

In 2008, President Obama altered this pattern by carrying 59 of Wisconsin's 72 counties. In 2004, President George W. Bush carried 45 counties while John Kerry only carried 27 counties, despite Mr. Kerry winning the state.

The Presidential election in 2012 appears to be another close race, where turnout will be the key. Traditionally, Wisconsin ranks just behind Minnesota - both of which have same-day voter registration - as one of the top states in voter turnout in presidential elections.  The Badger State saw 69.2 percent of eligible voters participating in 2008.

In the past five presidential elections, the percentage of voting age Wisconsinites who cast ballots ranged between 57.9% as a low and 72.9% as a high.  This year it is expected that about three million Wisconsin voters will cast a ballot in the presidential race.  You can help increase that number!

Be part of Wisconsin's important and crucial history in determining who will be the President of the United States in 2013.  Your vote truly counts.  Remember to vote this November 6... or vote early and beat the lines at your polling place.
For more information about the Wisconsin Association for Justice, see WAJ's website, www.wisjustice.org or call 608-257-5741.

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